It’s been over a year since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency, although much about daily life in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Northern Province remains the same. “There’s a reduced number of troops on the road,” says Shalin Uthayarasa, a journalist. “We’re experiencing a temporary respite in repression.” Uthayarasa goes on to mention that his two previous points apply to ordinary people, but aren’t relevant for journalists or human rights activists, who continue to face threats (or worse) from state security personnel. “I’m sure they [the Sri Lanka Army] haven’t reduced troop numbers,” he tells me.
Uthayarasa provides an important and unique perspective. From 2011-2013, he was attacked four times by the Sri Lanka Army as a result of his work as a journalist. Years later, he’s still undergoing physical therapy for the injuries that he’s suffered. As he tells me this I look more closely at the scar on his forehead, a lasting reminder of government repression.
In the Northern Province, community members have been speaking up more, as there is more space to publicly criticize the government. There’s also been modest progress regarding freedom of movement and the military’s intervention into civilian life. “The repression that was there under Mahinda [Rajapaksa] has ended, but the basic issues are all the same,” Uthayarasa says. He tells me that he’s referring to land issues (including the military’s continued occupation of civilian land), the government’s refusal to release Tamil political prisoners and ongoing militarization. “The military may be less visible, but they’re still there.” Relatedly, the surveillance of civilians remains an issue too.
In spite of modest progress, a degree of fear still lingers in the north. In late January, I spent a week in Jaffna District. One day I was eating dinner at a well-known hotel in Jaffna town and came across a young man who I had met on a previous visit to the country. The young man’s English is good and he seemed like he’d be an interesting person to speak with. I asked if he’d be up for a brief conversation sometime soon.
“We could meet maybe for thirty minutes or an hour. I was hoping to get your thoughts on the latest political developments,” I told him.
He seemed ambivalent, but reluctantly agreed to meet me. We set a time for the following day. Almost immediately after leaving me to my plate of chicken curry, the young man returned.
“If I meet with you, will there be a picture of me and you?” he asked me.
“No. Just meeting. There will be no pictures,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
We were set to meet at my hotel, which was located on Manipay Road. I waited for over an hour, yet he didn’t show. Two days later I ran into the young man again at the hotel where he works.
“Why didn’t you show up to the meeting?” I asked him.
“Sir, please don’t misunderstand me. I want to meet with you, but can’t. If I met you then definitely two, three people from TID [the Terrorism Investigation Division] will visit me. I want to be in Jaffna for a long time.” He also mentioned that some of his father’s land had been used as a training camp for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ruthless insurgency that fought for a separate Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the country. (The Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE in 2009, ending a civil war that lasted nearly three decades.)
“You’re being watched?” I asked him.
“Yes. That’s the reason.”
The TID is officially part of the Sri Lanka Police and falls under the penumbra of the country’s extensive surveillance apparatus.
On one afternoon, I conducted a focus group discussion with eleven people in a small village outside of Jaffna town. Arranged by a member of the Northern Provincial Council, the discussion was wide-ranging and some people spoke passionately. Broadly speaking, the people who participated don’t feel like the new government has done enough to help Tamils. One person told me about how peoples’ expectations increased after the August parliamentary vote, but “up to now nothing has happened.”
“Our suffering continues,” one of the participants told me.
“How can we be compensated for the intangibles? What about missing persons?” asked another.
After we finished I was getting ready to go. Several of the participants were standing in front of the house where we met; they were all laughing.
“Someone made a joke,” I was told.
“Oh, what was the joke about?”, I inquired.
An elderly woman immediately wiped the smile off her face and spoke directly to me in her native Tamil.
“What did she say?”, I asked.
“Foreigners keep coming, but nothing really changes.”
As Sri Lanka’s new government continues to garner the plaudits of the international community, let’s not forget about the panoply of problems that still plague the country’s Tamil-dominated north. Based on Sirisena’s performance this far, one could reasonably conclude that he’s isn’t Rajapaksa. Unfortunately, when it comes to a range of core Tamil issues, Sri Lanka’s current president doesn’t appear to be that much better than the previous one.